• Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Review - Sony PS2

    What were you doing at midnight last night? Sleeping, perhaps? TV? Gaming? It’s probably fair to say that you weren’t experiencing the Dark Hour - a time occurring at midnight which only a few people are aware of. During this time, normal folk are safely enclosed in their coffins, while those that are able to move freely are fighting for everyone’s very lives against the Shadows. Right into the middle of this is where Silent Protagonist 3 finds himself thrust.

    Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, for so many reasons, is unlike any other RPG. The basics are certainly there alright, talk to NPCs in the town, buy better weapons and fight monsters in the dungeon; rinse, repeat, and yet… it feels so fresh. The sole reason for this is the sense of time the game creates, and the feeling of real life that’s generated in turn. In how many games has a maiden needed urgent rescue, while your hero travels to seventeen different towns fighting monsters, staying in inns for months' worth of time, only to go to the rescue safe in the knowledge that your actions had no repercussions? No such luck in Persona 3. Every action you take takes time, and if you waste it you’ll find yourself in trouble.

    Every morning our hero wakes up to go to school. He works hard until school finishes, when his free time begins – and here’s where the decisions start. Does he go and chat up the cute girl he's been admiring from afar? It’s Tuesday so athletics club is meeting but of course going to athletics club means there’s no time to go to the library and study for the exams which are coming up and he really needs to do well to impress this other girl he's got his eye on because she only likes intelligent guys but he could also... Screw it - go to the karaoke bar and become a little more courageous in the process. Then maybe he'll have the guts to ask out that third girl… Every day plays out much the same, and you’ll find yourself planning your activities weeks in advance in an attempt to make as many friends as possible, while still balancing your school work and fighting monsters. Just like real school, then.

    The decisions you make are important too, as making friends is what Persona 3 is all about. By making friends and nurturing relationships the Personas that you can summon in battle to do your bidding become more powerful, with certain Personas only available if friendships with certain characters are strong enough. Yet more choices are presented on returning home of an evening. Go to bed early? Stay up and study? Maybe it’s about time you waited for the Dark Hour, and headed out for some action.

    The battles will come fairly naturally to any veterans of the MegaTen series. Most enemies have weaknesses and by exploiting them, or scoring a critical hit, a standing enemy will be knocked down and waste their next turn getting up, while the attacker earns an extra turn. If all enemies are knocked down at once an optional ‘all-out attack’ becomes available where every party member dives in, 'Tom and Jerry'-style, for huge damage. This has its disadvantages though, as the enemies will get back on their feet ready to act on their next turn – every turn a strategic nightmare! There is one major difference between Persona 3 and previous MegaTen games - rather than fighting as a party, the characters fight independently of each other, with the player only given control of the main character. What this means is that while you gain the benefit of those extra turns if you exploit weaknesses, missing an enemy entirely won’t penalise the whole party as it did previously, which makes the game slightly easier.

    The fact that control is only given to the main character creates one of the few flaws in Persona 3, that being the AI of your team-mates. While basic tactics can be used (heal/support, attack specific enemy, etc.,) they’re far too vague to be helpful, especially if compared with something similar such as the Gambit system in Final Fantasy XII. By telling a character to heal/support they’ll regularly support when you need healing, or heal when all you want is support - as if Murphy’s law has been programmed into the game deliberately. When a character fully restores their own HP at a greater cost of SP than it’d cost to fully restore the entire party - for the fiftieth time - it’s difficult not to curse at them.

    The only other issue is around weaknesses. While the weakness system is a wonderful one, and creates some of the most strategic, edge-of-your-seat battles, where one mistake is the difference between life and death, it also shows how poor the battle system is when it’s removed. Many bosses and tougher foes simply don’t have weaknesses, and when faced with these the battles move from strategic, to simple wars of attrition. Attack, attack, attack, ad infinitum.

    Overall these are minor flaws, though. There’s not a large amount of battles without some kind of weakness to exploit, and taking on the healing and support duties yourself negates the need to worry about them, leaving the other party members to attack, which the available tactics are much more designed to successfully allow.

    The battles are made considerably easier if they’re entered with a decent set of Personas, which is where those friendships are important. Go into battle against a monster weak to fireattacks armed with a Persona sans fire magicand death awaits you. Personas can be received after winning battles via ‘shuffle time’ (essentially a ‘find the lady’-style card game, which can also net bonus money, experience, etc), or they can be fused with one another to create a powerful new Persona. This system is simple to get to grips with, yet remarkably deep. Fusing two or more Personas together will create a new Persona with its own standard skills, along with carrying over a few skills from the base Persona too. This means that Persona can be fully customised and ensures that you never lose the skills you like. With almost 150 Personas to find and fuse, it’s almost a whole game in itself.

    Persona 3 is an RPG unlike any other, and one that really gets under your skin. When you’re not playing it, you’ll still be planning what you’d like to do when you are, and wondering just what your friends will get up to next. With the life-sim aspects, an excellent battle system, and a Pokémon-style "gotta catch 'em all" collection system balanced so perfectly, there's something here for everyone to enjoy.
    Comments 3 Comments
    1. hudson's Avatar
      hudson -
      Thanks for this. Really good timing too as Persona 5 was reduced ridiculously on the PS Store.

      Your review has started to make me think I should pick up a PS Vita to play this and P4.

      How do you rank the games in the series?
    1. fuse's Avatar
      fuse -
      They're pretty long games, and quite similar to one another in terms of structure, and I think the idea of playing them each in a row is a very ambitious and quite unlikely commitment. Generally speaking too, they've gotten better in terms of how everything works over time - I tried going back to P3P after finishing P4G and found it hard giving up some of the things I'd gotten used to. Similarly, making it through the 100+ hour slog of P5 (Royal or otherwise) and then going straight back to 4 is going to be quite testing on your patience.
    1. wakka's Avatar
      wakka -
      If you had a Vita handy, I'd say play P4G, simply because it's significantly less of a commitment than P5. P4G is about ~70 hours, P5 is 130+.

      P5 is brilliant but to be honest I'd say P4 is much better paced. P5 is overlong.